Dec 2023 13

James Hammontree speaks with ReGen on the latest developments in Black Magnet’s rise through the industrial/metal ranks.
 

 

An InterView with James Hammontree of Black Magnet

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

For more than five years, James Hammontree has been honing and refining his own brand of mechanized fury with Black Magnet. Over the course of two acclaimed albums, a self-titled EP, and the most recent “Birth” single, the band has evolved from a solo endeavor into a fully-fledged group whose members all offer vital creative functionality to what is becoming one of the more exciting and established acts in modern industrial/metal. Themes revolve around the dichotomies inherent in modern society – courage in the face of hopelessness, the consequences of bridging the artificial with the organic, the devaluing of human beings of different castes vs. the strength of diversity. Simply put, Black Magnet is a band for the times, and ReGen Magazine is thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with Hammontree on the group’s latest developments – from the formation of the current lineup to the challenges of touring, from the disparities in industrial and metal to the current state of the music industry.

 

First of all, how are you? How is your health?

Hammontree: Doing good overall, staying extremely busy with music and teaching music. Health is good! Working out regularly. Working with new daily affirmations and mind metaphysic techniques that have greatly improved my creativity and day to day life.

The ‘Birth’ single was recorded by the current band lineup, whereas the past material was mostly you with collaborators. Would you tell us first how this lineup first came together?

Hammontree: In the past, I had a couple of friends fill in for live shows and tours, but as the project started gaining momentum, I wanted a more permanent situation. We had a tour booked and I realized I at least needed a live synthesizer player to make it more appealing. Through local music and friends of friends, I met Eric Gorman who had an awesome synth-based project called Harglow. We started jamming together and he introduced me to his other bandmate Ryne Bratcher who was equally gifted and interested in Black Magnet. Covid ended up canceling that tour we had, so we took the time to rehearse and start writing together as a unit. A couple of years/tours later, we added Jared Branson on drums, who I also had a black metal side project with, and we have been playing and writing as a four-piece since 2021.

Working solo granted you a certain freedom and purity of vision; in what ways do you feel that working with the full band on the new single improved upon or at least evolved that vision?

Hammontree: Working as a full band has really, really helped the process, not just in creativity but also quality control. I think it was beneficial for me to start Black Magnet as a solo project to establish a sound and feel to the work, but they have done nothing but vastly improve the music in every way. It helps so much to be able to bounce ideas off of four different people with one common goal in mind. We all know when something is working and when something isn’t – it almost doesn’t even have to be discussed. We all previously have a deep sense and understanding of the style of music we want to play. We all have specific leanings into different styles of music that we all bring to the table stylistically within the formula of Black Magnet. On top of being absolutely skilled and killer musicians, they were probably some of the only musicians on their level with an interest in industrial music in the state. The new single was just the very beginning of what we have written.

What was your songwriting process? Did songs begin with the electronics/beats first, or the guitars, or was it more nuanced than that?

Hammontree: Each song is pretty different. For me, any sound that sparks an interest that I feel I could work within for a long time is worth investigating. Sometimes it’s a guitar riff, sometimes a basic drumbeat with a noise, synth melody, or bass line on top of it. Very rarely is it a lyric first, but it has happened. Much of the time, I will write an arpeggiated synth, program a beat on top of it, then write a guitar riff to gain a sense of where it could go. Sometimes we may only end up with one of those elements in the finished product, but it could be enough to spark new ideas that lead to every element of a new song. Lately, I’ve been chopping up and glitching chamber orchestras and throat singing while resampling them with my own plug-in presets and sample packs.

With the ‘Birth’ single and Black Magnet’s current songwriting, how has the process changed with the band? Do you all participate, or are you still the driving force?

Hammontree: We definitely all participate in every song. Some songs can be a little more driven by the individual who initially came up with the idea, but more often than not, it’s a process everyone is pretty equally a part of. ‘Birth’ started with some soundscape textures Eric came up with, Ryne put a beat behind it and wrote the main riff on guitar, and we constructed the order and composition as a band. Even just a crazy noise can spark inspiration. ‘Birth’ has a sample of a transformer exploding from an ice storm here that someone caught on video.
We also all have different skill sets that help the overall sound of the song. Ryne is an incredible engineer/mixer, Eric is great with editing lyrics and structure, I write a lot of the main riffs and general vibe of where we start, Jared comes up with alternate beats based on what we have written electronically, etc. We also all play every instrument in the band (more or less), so we switch roles from time to time to get an idea across.

 

 

The new single saw you working with Mycal Soto, whereas you worked with Sanford Parker on the Hallucination Scene and Body Prophecy albums; how would you compare their two styles with regards to helping you achieve the sound you were reaching for with Black Magnet’s music on their respective releases?

Hammontree: Mycal Soto is probably the best local engineer within our area with an understanding of our style. He plays in the band Peelingflesh and records most of the local metal and hardcore bands in Oklahoma City. Instead of traveling to record just two songs, we decided to go with him, though our next full-length will probably be recorded with Sanford Parker again. Soto has a great sense of how modern metal is recorded, so we chose two of our more metal songs to record with him. Some of the newer songs have a lot more synth and electronics happening that Sanford will thrive at engineering.

Black Magnet is often characterized as industrial/metal and you’ve shared the stage with a number of artists that seem to present a new wave of the sound – Author & Punisher, Fact Pattern, etc. I’ve long held a belief that the concept of ‘genre’ in music is becoming obsolete. What are your thoughts on this? What do you find to be the validity of such categorizations?

Hammontree: I totally agree with that, especially more as time goes on and genres get smashed together. There’s nothing more boring than a newer band playing by the rules of a previously established classic band or genre, no matter how crucial or important they were. At this point in time, there is so much music out there, it seems ridiculous to be just inspired by something so narrow.

On the other hand, while industrial/metal is nothing new, there does still seem to be a distinct divide between the two worlds, bridged only by those ‘niche’ bands that seem more rooted in one or the other. What does industrial music mean to you?

Hammontree: To me, the term ‘industrial’ defines more of a sonic palette and sound instrumentation rather than a genre. As technology develops, the capability for all music grows and grows, and it’s something that should be expanded on and not narrowed down.

What are your perceptions on the two scenes – metal and industrial – and how the two have evolved, both separately and collectively?

Hammontree: I think the implementation of electronic dance music elements in heavy guitar based metal is what makes the sound of industrial music on a basic sonic level. With the growth of electronic technology in music in all genres, it’s surprising there isn’t more industrial/metal. There is a lot of seemingly industrial ‘influenced’ music, but not much that mixes crushing guitar with dance rooted music. Regarding my statement above, it seems totally viable to push outside of the genre while playing within these sonic parameters. I definitely feel that independently, both industrial and metal could be pushed much further than they already have, though there are sick bands in both. I just don’t understand why people are more enamored with tradition and familiarity than they are with ingenuity and freshness, especially in art. I end up liking bands far outside of my usual tastes if they are doing something new.

From a production standpoint, what have you found to be the most difficult factor in balancing the human element with the machines – both in terms of recording in the studio and performing in live?

Hammontree: At first, it was really just getting proficient at guitar and singing enough to play to a machine that’s on a metronome that has no errors vs. a human drummer. I was always adamant to make this project a heavy guitar driven band rather than a purely electronic band, so there’s always been a definite human element to it. Usually, the artificial machine element aids to the nuance of the sound, but using different effects and techniques with them so they don’t sound stock is a priority and extremely important. Also keeping things loose and non-repetitive as possible can be important when working with so many electronic elements. Strong stage presence and crowd engagement, as well.

What do you see as the next necessary step in the development of technologies geared toward the experience of music (again, both live and in the studio)? What would you like to see happen?

Hammontree: Live, I would really like to see an easier fluid integration of samples, lights, and video projection being able to be manipulated together rather than having a separate unit for each and rather than it all running through on a track. It would be cool to be able to change it all on the spot in an intuitive way as the song is played live rather than have a light tech and sound tech responsible for it.
Recording technology is so crazy right now, I probably only know a very small portion of its capability, even though I use it every day. I love the possibilities of coding plug-ins and open source soft-synths; those both have an infinitude possibilities.

Your previous releases were with 20 Buck Spin. What are your thoughts on the traditional models of releasing music and how it applies to you? Moving forward, do you think we will still be bound to record labels?

Hammontree: I think that releasing with a label and independently both have their place. I love being able to release random singles I record locally and dropping songs between albums, but on the other hand, I really like reserving studio quality songs for full albums for a label release that will have wider physical and digital distribution. I look at it the same way you would look at a drawing verses a large scale oil painting at a museum – there’s room for everything in between. I love the idea of people in their bedrooms recording absolute bangers and being able to put them online for everyone to hear in the same way I love huge high production well-refined studio albums. They all of their place.

Each Black Magnet released has had different cover art, and each video has had a somewhat different (though always frenetic) aesthetic. What is your philosophy around the visual presentation of Black Magnet and how it complements or strengthens the music?

Hammontree: Visual presentation is extremely important. I’ve always loved bands like Sonic Youth, Swans, Melvins, and tons of other bands who used important contemporary artists of their time in their arsenal of visuals. Fine art is my second passion outside of music, so I always try to find visual artists I connect to as I’m writing the albums, so in a way, they inform the songs as they are being written. This was very true of Jesse Draxler’s work. I was very lucky for him to share mutual feelings and we came out with a great product together. Art is a different language than music, but they communicate in the same abstract way that I try to home in on certain feelings where something could overlap into the music. The videos are the same way, though I do them myself. That’s a medium I would really like to work with an accomplished director on. That being said, I try to use visuals as a piece of the puzzle just like I would a drum sound or a synth.

 

 

What do you feel are the major lessons we learned in the wake of the pandemic? Or to put it another way, what do you feel artists, labels, venues, the industry as a whole should take away from the experience and use or think about going forward?

Hammontree: Honestly, I would say that the pandemic is an example of how much your future and path is in your own hands. The power is in the hands of the artist and no one else. Everyone responded in so many different ways, but in the end, everyone took it into their own hands, for better for worse. Also, time and money are vital; don’t waste it. Learning that you can’t repeat the same behavior and expect new outcomes is probably the major lesson I learned.

Outside of music, what do you most enjoy? Hiking, reading, movies, sports, gaming, etc.? What is giving you the most joy now?

Hammontree: I cook a ton, so learning off the wall regional recipes is something I deeply enjoy. I love oil painting, but it takes a lot of time and patience. I fish a lot, so fishing to catch and cook different species is a lot of fun. My parents have a house in Colorado, so I do a lot of hiking and camping there – as primitive as possible. In the next year, I’m moving to a rural area with a lot of land, so I plan on gardening pretty extensively. I teach music for a living, and on my breaks, I teach myself new instruments. I wish I had time for more gaming; I play Chrono Trigger on my phone on tour. (Laughter)

What’s next for Black Magnet?

Hammontree: Doing a short regional tour in January with Bleached Cross from Chicago. Recording the full record after that. Then touring Europe and playing a fest there in August. Until then, just constantly writing and practicing as a unit.

 

Black Magnet
Website, Facebook, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Instagram

 

Photography by Cameron Gene, Hannah Lillard, and Kevin Lorenz – provided courtesy of Black Magnet

 

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